Incompetents

Stephen Bann

  • Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett
    Calder, 48 pp, £5.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 7145 3979 1
  • That Voice by Robert Pinget, translated by Barbara Wright
    Red Dust (New York), 114 pp, $10.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 87376 041 7
  • King Solomon by Romain Gary, translated by Barbara Wright
    Harvill, 256 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 00 261416 2
  • A Year in Hartlebury, or The Election by Benjamin Disraeli and Sarah Disraeli
    Murray, 222 pp, £8.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 7195 4020 8
  • The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire by Doris Lessing
    Cape, 180 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 224 02130 3

The less there is to see, the more there is to say. Such might be the motto of the Beckett enthusiast. An ingenious recent article by James Hansford devotes almost twenty pages to a story whose original manuscript consists of a bare page of typescript,[1] But the apparent-neglect of due critical economy is easily explained by the character of Beckett’s corpus of writings. To borrow the term which Micher Butor coined for Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, these writings form a ‘mobile romanesque’. Each new work offers a new vantage-point on what we sense to be the same fictional material. A repeated phrase will not only play its intrinsic structural role in the unfolding of the narrative, but will mobilise a whole series of supplementary murmurs from the vast echo chamber of Beckett’s preceding work. And as the new pieces of writing become slighter and slighter – judged by the crude criterion of length – so the challenge to the attentive reader is maximised. Jean-Michel Rey claims to see the germ of Ill seen ill said, Beckett’s last brief novel, in a fragmentary passage from How it is.[2] The earlier work establishes a particular cadence, which at first passes almost undetected in the rhythmic, elliptical patterning of Beckett’s narrative. The title of the new work singles out that lapidary cadence, and it becomes the ground bass for a further, even more elliptical elaboration of Beckett’s recurring themes.

Whether the title of this most recent novel, or novella, can be elicited from the earlier writings must be left to the specialist to find out. What cannot be denied is that Beckett has lighted upon a spectacular banner headline, which summons up other associations and, in doing so, achieves a querulous irony. Worstward Ho – the title puts us in mind of Charles Kingsley’s stirring adventure yarn, and perhaps of Kipling’s boarding-school, model for Stalky and Co. Shorn of the exclamation-mark which gives a stirring emphasis to the Victorian adventure story (and the name of the Victorian school), Worstward Ho is the signal for an implosion of fictional matter. ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ is perhaps the most memorable of Beckett’s phrases, conveying as it does the force of contradiction as an agent in thickening and deepening the narrative texture. In Worstward Ho, which could be seen as the third in a new trilogy of related novels, the complementary stresses of forward movement and devices of inhibition produce a remarkably concentrated effect. The positive is expressed through innumerable detours into the double negative. Verbs are lopped off, leaving their predicates washed up on some remote semantic shore. Yet occasionally the balance is tilted forward, and the elliptical fragments appear for a moment to hold together. Even the exclamation-mark returns, in force, when Beckett starts to count from one to three, and perhaps, endorses this new trilogy:

Something not wrong with one. Then with two. Then with three. So on. Something not wrong with all. Far from wrong. Far far from wrong.

    The words too whosesoever. What room for worse! How almost true they sometimes almost ring! How wanting in inanity! Say the night is young alas and take heart. Or better worse say still a watch of night alas to come. A rest of last watch to come. And take heart.

It would be a great pity if, nowadays, Beckett had become more celebrated than read, or if the classic status of the early work had blinded us to the evidence of his continuing achievement. Worstward Ho enables us to enter, once again, the circulating mobile of his fictional world, and to follow the still enthralling adventures of the lone authorial voice.

There is perhaps only one other living author for whom a direct comparison with Beckett would be neither irrelevant nor absurd. The French novelist and playwright Robert Pinget was put forward in the 1960s as an exponent of the ‘nouveau roman’. But his affiliation with Beckett was always stronger than the temporary association with Robbe-Grillet’s travelling circus, and Beckett paid him the compliment of making an English translation of his short play La Manivelle (The Old Tune) in 1963. It can and should be claimed for Pinget that he has produced a sequence of some twenty books over the past three decades, all of which observe the kind of stringent laws of discourse and development that we associate with the Beckett oeuvre. Pinget has also constructed his recognisable ‘mobile romanesque’. But the comparison with Beckett should not be allowed to mask the fact that this is a wholly original and distinctive achievement.

Pinget has been reasonably well served by his English publisher, John Calder, over the years, despite the solecism of choosing the title Recurrent Melody for the almost self-explanatory Passacaille (published in French in 1969 and translated in 1975). In the recent past, however, the pace of Pinget translations seems to have been hotted up by an enterprising small press in New York, Red Dust, who have not only reinstated the missing Passacaglia out proceeded to fill most remaining gaps with their stylish and relatively cheap publications. That Voice (Pinget’s penultimate novel, dating from 1975) appears in the company of Between Fantoine and Agapa (his first book, a collection of short stories published in 1950). Additional translations, including that of his most recent, outstanding novel L’Apocryphe (1980), are apparently in the pipeline. The constant factor in this transatlantic shift has been the skill and commitment of his English translator, Barbara Wright, who has brought to Pinget’s work a well-deserved reputation for managing to translate the untranslatable – Albert-Birot and Queneau, to name only two. In her article on ‘The “Trials” of Translating Pinget’ in the current Review of Contemporary Fiction,[3] she comments acutely on the challenge afforded by this type of writing, identifying in particular the translator’s ‘attempt to reproduce the author’s tone of voice’. It is an observation which is particularly relevant to That Voice, where the reiterated device of a direct speech conjured up from who knows where is the thread which binds together not only this narrative, but the sum of all Pinget’s previous narratives:

You’re right, Theo, I’ll try to tell them to you but don’t interrupt me or I shall lose the thread, well then, there was the one about the café of illusions, and the one about the down-and-out, and the one about the manor house, and the one about the pond with the water lilies, and the one about the path through the wood, and the one about the underground passages being hollowed out, and hollowed out, and the one about the cemetery, and the one about the word that sticks in your throat, and the one about the lost letter, and the one about the so-called nephews, and the one about the law court and its sentence, and the one about the dethroned king, and the one about the murderers everywhere, and the one about the garden with the nettles, and the one about the knife, and the one about the dead children, and the one about the grief, and the one about the rats, and the one about the innocents, and the one about the journeys to nowhere, and the one about the town, and the one about the cross-roads, and the one about the grief, and the one about the dead children, and the one about the lost letter, and the one about the murderers and the one ...

Pinge himself explains in a brief preface that the book is an anamnesis – a ‘recalling to mind things past’ – which exists on three distinct yet intertwining levels. There is the recollection of the narrator who tells the story, and that of the ‘chronicler’ who can call to mind, albeit imperfectly, the content of Pinget’s previous works. Then there is the third level of purely formal repetition and restatement which in That Voice takes the form of a recapitulation of the main themes in reverse order. Such a structure may appear over-ingenious, when stated in this bald way. For it is only in the process of reading that we can take account both of the risk that Pinget runs, and of his success in guarding against it. ‘But the explanations after the event could only diminish, if not reduce to nothing, the importance of the writings in question,’ reads the text: ‘to see things from the analyst’s point of view would in any case have been aberrant, a text worthy of the name only being what it is by a kind of grace which cares nothing for the latest craze.’

It is in the tentative but increasingly significant use of the theological vocabulary of grace and redemption that we can mark Pinget’s emergence from the labyrinthine structures of the ‘nouveau roman’ – a process which has become, complete with the publication of L’Apocryphe. Yet the remarkable unity of his work over the whole period is manifest from the very title of the first collection, Between Fantoine and Agapa, picked up once again in the narrative of That Voice (‘Alfred who spent his whole life on his researches between Fantoine and Agapa, town halls and presbyteries ...’). For ‘Fantoine’, read ‘Fantasy’, and for ‘Agapa’, Pinget’s mythical bishopric, read the Christian virtue of ‘Agape’. You will then have the binary programme of Pinget’s writing, which is to negotiate between the narcissistic pleasures of unbridled fantasy and the particular thirst for communication which can be qualified as ‘love of the brethren’ – directed to no one person but to the author’s audience in general. Only through this strategy, he implies, can the likely failure be avoided: ‘Repetition of facts that are no longer united by desire’.

At first sight, there seems to be little in common between the novels of Pinget and Romain Gary’s King Solomon, if we discount the excellent translating services of Barbara Wright. With closer acquaintance, the gap is considerably reduced. But any reference to Gary’s late work requires first of all a discussion of the unusual, even bizarre circumstances which accompanied its first publication. The cause célèbre is amply documented here, both in an introduction by John Weightman and in a postscript on the ‘Life and Death of Emile Ajar’ which Gary left behind at his death, by suicide, in 1980. Weightman dilates on the ‘cliquish’ nature of Parisian literary politics, and Gary himself confirms that it was the arbitrary and vindictive behaviour of the critics which persuaded him to fabricate a new literary persona, and publish under the name of ‘Emile Ajar’. But here the plot begins to thicken. For the former winner of the Prix Goncourt to attempt a new Ossian (his own comparison) there has to be a more powerful motive than simply ‘getting one’s own back’ on the literary establishment. Gary’s ‘Life and Death of Emile Ajar’, far from being a mere demystification of a literary Piltdown man, takes off into unexpected territory when we realise that the delegated author of the four late novels – Gary’s mysterious cousin Paul Pavlowitch – began to act independently of his manipulator: eventually Gary had to ask him to bow out of the competition for a further Prix Goncourt, when he had already violated their agreement by giving his photograph to the press. This unexpected revenge of the creature on its creator seems no less telling a sign of Gary’s expectations from the new persona than his wish to confute the critics. As Weightman puts it, his suicide was not only a ‘retrospective slap’ to the Parisian milieu, but ‘returning God’s gift of consciousness with a gesture of disgust’. What he was heartily tired of was not just the stereotype of the ‘Romain Gary image’ but the yawning gap between the Absent Creator (the Deus Absconditus) and the created world.

Undoubtedly this is the issue that animates King Solomon, and makes it a book of delicacy and passion, at one and the same time. The elderly but spry Jewish businessman, Monsieur Solomon, is portrayed as ‘acting in the interim to teach God a lesson and make Him ashamed of Himself’. To be specific, he is devoting his time and his money to an ever-open switchboard, the SOS Volunteers, which takes calls from lonely and distressed people, and sends them baskets of fruit. But Monsieur Solomon’s generalised philanthropy is, as we finally recognise, no more than a substitute for a lifelong passion for the veteran of the ‘realist chanson’, Mademoiselle Cora Lamenaire. The narrator of the novel, who is a tough guy on the outside but conceals a heart of gold, has the mission of bringing together these two obstinately estranged lovers. His method is to stimulate the desire of Mademoiselle Cora, who has no difficulty in seeing him as the type of brutal male familiar to her from the doom-laden scenarios of the ‘realist chanson’. In return, he treats her to an unusual form of tenderness: ‘I did not fuck her out of pity,’ he maintains. ‘I did it out of love. You know very well how it is, Chuck. It was out of Love, but it had nothing to do with her. You know very well that it’s in general with me.’ The point is emphasised when he persists in looking up Amour in the dictionary, and finds ‘unselfish, loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another’. In his own way, Romain Gary was also cutting a track ‘Between Fantoine and Agapa’.

Gary’s King Solomon kept its alias for no more than a year: Benjamin and Sarah Disraeli’s A Year at Hartlebury, or The Election has remained pseudonymous for a century and a half, to await republication at this most appropriate of seasons. No literary subterfuge was involved, but the simple need to protect the rising young politician from the effects of too blatant and undisguised an expression of his views. Yet A Year at Hartlebury can hardly be thought of as a very satisfactory novel, because it is so clearly the fruit of a collaboration. Close to the surface, there is the neo-Gothic Romance which takes as its focus the Byronic figure of Aubrey Bohun. If Byron had not died at Missolonghi, but had decided a few years after the Battle of Navarino to return in state to Newstead Abbey, he would presumably have created the same stir in the neighbourhood as Aubrey Bohun returning from Greece to the castle of his ancestors. The points in common between the real and the fictional hero are irresistible – dark good looks, and an aura of having been immersed in oriental customs which no respectable woman could countenance. The divergence lies in the fact that Aubrey Bohun is very far from bankrupt, and, being an aristocrat who is unencumbered by a title, can involve himself in the local politics of the year following Lord Grey’s Reform Bill.

It would, however, be unjust to saddle Sarah with responsibility for this romantic side of A Year at Hartlebury, even if we threw in at the same time the credit for a number of piquant social details that make the Bucking-hamshire milieu more than moderately amusing. Certainly she can be blamed for the effect of the absurdly melodramatic conclusion. But if Benjamin had clearly lost interest by this stage, his specifically political contribution cannot be easily detached from the Byronic persona of the hero. He had, after all, himself returned from extensive travels in the Orient when he contested a series of unsuccessful elections in 1832 and 1833. He was aware of his own exotic oratorical effect, and he can hardly be blamed for hoisting his opinions on the shoulders of an ideal ego who commanded thirty thousand pounds a year and an ancient Norman name. That the opinions of Aubrey Bohun are Disraeli’s own can’t really be doubted, and they make prophetic reading:

Whatever might have been Mr Bohun’s fancies when absent from his country, his keen brain, on his return, soon detected the spirit of the Reform Bill. He saw it was a Whig measure, and not a democratic one. He perceived that its only object was to destroy the balance of parties in the state, and that it intrenched in power a party who by the course of circumstances, had become pledged to an anti-national policy. Mr Bohun cared nothing about the wretched struggle of factions, but he wished to be the subject of a great empire, and not to sink into the miserable citizenship of a second-rate island. He knew the Tories could never have remained so long in power, unless they had maintained a national policy: he knew the Whigs, in expelling them from their places, were bound to maintain an adverse system, and therefore he foresaw the dismemberment of the Empire. This was the reason he opposed the Whigs.

There it is in a nutshell. What A Year at Hartlebury demonstrates brilliantly through its account of the mechanics of post-Reform Bill politics is the quite unexpected emergence of a kind of radical Tory populism. Michael Foot is reported as saying of this welcome rediscovery: ‘To read the book is to be convinced as well as enraptured.’ It would be interesting to know what his present opponents might make of it.

One way of writing a ‘political novel’ is to proceed as the Disraelis did: to mix the ideological statements in with a rich stew of character, incident and milieu. This is very much the approach of Billy Lee Brammer’s ‘classic American political novel’, The Gay Place, first published in 1961 and now republished in Britain.[4] Lord Harlech epitomises the method in his foreword: ‘We see and we feel how that world makes and breaks men and women both in their public life and in their private life.’ Another way of going about it is the strategy of satire: in place of the comforting verisimilitude of the realist novel, there is the continuing pressure of fictional disorientation. Whether it be Swift or Voltaire, we cannot fail to notice the ironic distance of the narrative, and we are reminded that values do not become impregnable because they have been embodied in rhetoric. Doris Lessing has chosen to make a courageous change in direction, towards political satire, in her Canopus in Argos series, which is ostensibly Science Fiction, but reveals itself all too clearly as an allegory of our own sublunary sphere. The names may at first be inscrutable, and the never-never region of Star Wars apparently in our view. But there is no mistaking the code which is at work, when we come across a reference like this in the first few pages:

Constantly invaded by one or other of the two Great Powers, sometimes described as Sirian and sometimes as Puttioran, the inhabitants of Polshi, because of these continual strains and tensions and persecutions, because of the efforts they have always had to make to preserve their planetary identity and their sense of being Polshan, have evolved a dashing, heroic, audacious planetary character for which they have long been famous. Throughout two vast Empires (I do not mention our own) the Polshans are known for this peculiarly dramatic and even self-immolating nature.

The narrator of this passage, it will be noted, comes from neither of the ‘Empires’. He can record with a measure of detachment the conflicting ambitions and competing machinations of a variety of ideologues. And he can supervise with benevolent firmness the initiatives of his young Canopean colleague, Incent, who threatens to succumb time after time to the prevailing ‘Undulant Rhetoric’ of the foreign planetary systems. On the occasions when Incent appears to be plunged irremediably in the sea of political rhetoric, there is only one way of retrieving him: a type of historical aversion therapy which goes by the name of ‘Total Immersion’. Incent must relive the experiences of a French metal-worker during the Revolution (‘the most energetic revolutionaries are always middle-class’). He must experience the verbal afflatus which is the inseparable accompaniment of terrorist action:

He met with others like himself in a hundred poor places, foundries, cafés, dens of every sort, made speeches and listened to them, ran through the streets with mobs shouting out words: Death ... Blood ... Liberty ... Freedom ... Down with ... To the Guillotine with ... He greedily assimilated every bit of news about the King and Queen, the court, the priests. He was like a conduit for words, words, words, he was in a permanent high fever of Rhetoric, he fell under the spell of all the wonder-workers, the hypnotisers of the public.

Doris Lessing’s targets are clear enough. She is no less harsh on the slogans of liberal populism than she is on the shibboleths of totalitarianism. Chanting ‘We shall overcome’ is not, for the Canopean visitor, a promise of effective political action. If The Sentimental Agents leaves, in the end, an equivocal impression, this is perhaps because the assured ironic distance seems to be unsupported by any consistent theory, and practice, of language. The stance of Swift or Voltaire is a luxury for which present-day writers must pay heavily, if they forfeit by the same token the authentic voice of modernity. It is precisely Beckett’s dogged persistence in Modernist experiment that gives him his stature: as Jean-Michel Rey expresses it, the human species is ‘deeply sick’ with words, and it becomes aware of this at least partly through the medium of a literature such as that of Beckett. The same point could be made about the obstinately repetitious yet occasionally dazzling novels of Pinget. A less apocalyptic way of expressing it is suggested by Peter Wollen, in one of the semi-fictional contributions to his illuminating collection, Readings and Writings.[5] Wollen argues: ‘if there is to be a theory of linguistic “competence” – if, indeed, this is the principal end of linguistics – should we not greet with horror or delight its rival, the theory of literary incompetence?’ There can be few better ways of characterising the modern experimental novelist than as a practical theorist of literary incompetence, as an ‘Anti-Chomsky’.

[1] ‘Seeing and Saying in “As the story was told” ’ in Journal of Beckett Studies, edited by John Pilling, Autumn 1982, No 8.

[2] ‘Sur Samuel Beckett’ by Jean-Michel Rey, in Café Littéraire, edited by Jean-Louis Schefer, 1983, No 1.

[3] edited by John O’Brien, Summer 1983, Vol. III.

[4] The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer, Blond and Briggs, 526 pp., £9.95, 28 April, 0 85634 142 8.

[5] Readings and Writings by Peter Wollen, New Left Books, 228 pp., £15 and £4.95, November 1982, 0 86091 055 5.